On the Tribulations of Learning in the Modern Educational System

The modern education system is focused on earning a credential. These credentials are, in effect, a sort of badge that identifies the “educated” person as having completed a list of requirements. Because it is more difficult, and takes much time and attention, to measure a person’s ability to solve new problems using critical thinking, the modern educational system, borrowing from the style of modern state-capitalism, employs a series of streamlined tests that check more well-defined abilities. Implicit in this method is the assumption that measures of intelligence are relatively static– in other words, certain criteria can be used to measure intelligence, regardless of the person being tested and the time at which they are being tested. Let us call this the central dogma of the modern educational system. By operating on the central dogma, the modern educational system operates on a deeply seeded flaw.

Because of this, testing for the ability for critical thought does not happen, since to do so would be inconsistent with the central dogma. The ability to think critically is decidedly dynamic whereas the central dogma is a static approach. Critical thinking is defined as “forms of learning, thought, and analysis that go beyond the memorization and recall of information and facts… critical thinking occurs when students are analyzing, evaluating, interpreting, or synthesizing information and applying creative thought to form an argument, solve a problem, or reach a conclusion. [1]” Thus, there is no prescribed method for undertaking a critical assessment. There are no timeless steps to follow in order to successfully think critically. Each critically-thinking assessment is specific to a specific time and a specific place (even if there are common threads, the majority of which we usually refer to as ‘rationality’). In systems science, this is shown by the cute and absurd problem encountered; agent-based models become so complex that in some cases only their creators can feasibly understand them! The spatiotemporal dependence of critical thinking can be further demonstrated by the fact that philosophical arenas of thought, such as the philosophy of science, are still alive and well. Even though the scientific method is so well-established as a valid method for producing reliable conclusions, even the scientific method is still being developed by critical thought. One such appraisal is given in Paul Feyerabend’s “Against Method,” which is very much in alignment with the ideas expressed here. From the text,

“There are two reasons why such an answer [as the one expressed in Against Method] seems to be appropriate. The first reason is that the world which we want to explore is a largely unknown entity. We must, therefore, keep our options open and we must not restrict ourselves in advance. Epistemological prescriptions may look splendid when compared with other epistemological prescriptions, or with general principles, but who can guarantee that they are the best way to discover, not just a few isolated ‘facts’, but also some deep-lying secrets of nature? The second reason is that a scientific education as described above (and as practised in our schools) cannot be reconciled with a humanitarian attitude. It is in conflict ‘with the cultivation of individuality which alone produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings’; it ‘maims by compression, like a Chinese lady’s foot, every part of human nature which stands out prominently, and tends to make a person markedly different in outline’ from the ideals of rationality that happen to be fashionable in science, or in the philosophy of science. The attempt to increase liberty, to lead a full and rewarding life, and the corresponding attempt to discover the secrets of nature and of man, entails, therefore, the rejection of all universal standards and of all rigid traditions. (Naturally, it also entails the rejection of a large part of contemporary science.) [2]”

These ideas can be confirmed by anyone who has crammed for a test. Think to your own experience, if you have ever done this– did you remember much of what you learned? Personally, I have taken many tests and received very high grades. But in order to receive these high grades, I had to sacrifice a true understanding of the material in order to be able to hold the knowledge in my head required for the test in the allotted time given to learn it. So, my entire method of studying changed to accommodate the modern system. When left free, I study by starting at a place of interest and then letting that take me naturally to whatever other subjects may be brought up in my mind. The connections to other subjects are guided by my own personal models, and by the experiments I design to confirm, disconfirm, and develop those models. For instance, if I am reading about dark energy for leisure, and it comes up that dark energy contributes to the acceleration of bodies away from each other, then I may think of another piece I read on the cosmological constant. Even though I may not understand these papers entirely, I develop a hypothesis based on my higher-order pattern recognition: I wonder, “Is the cosmological constant related to dark energy?” And even though the cosmological constant or the vacuum energy density predicted by quantum mechanics may have nothing to do with some assignment about researching dark energy, I will look up more papers on those ideas in order to confirm or disconfirm models developed via my higher-order pattern recognition (henceforth called ‘intuition’), in order to shape and develop my intuitive abilities. Then, the results of these experiments on my intuition help me to develop better mental models of physical phenomena as well as to develop my intuitive abilities to more effectively draw new connections and one day solve new problems in physics or elsewhere.

However, when studying for the educational system, instead of for leisure, there is no time for any of this. If studying dark energy for a class in the modern educational system, I immediately banish any intuitions from my mind and simply commit the information to memory and move along as quickly as possible. The modern educational system is far too fast-paced for the free and natural development of critical thought and predictive, powerful mental models. The modern education system thus extinguishes critical thinking and discourages the development of revolutionary scientific progress in favor of rote memorization. Remember that Einstein himself said he chose physics for the “relative freedom,” and attaining that relative freedom was no doubt part of what enabled his genius. After all, consider that he had to flee the Lutipold Gymnasium in Munich as a young person, using a doctor’s note that stated he was going to have a nervous breakdown due to the authoritarian methods of that school. He then finished his secondary education at the Argovian school in Switzerland.

 

For related reading, keep an eye out for an upcoming article, “On the Facility of Learning in a Privileged Environment.”

 

 

Works Cited

1 http://edglossary.org/critical-thinking/

2 Feyerabend, “Against Method,” Third edition, page 12

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